The Five Best Mutual Old Time Radio Detectives

In past parts of this series, we’ve looked at multi-network and ABC shows.  Now we turn to the Mutual Broadcasting Company. Mutual had many fine detective shows and with good-sized budgets.

There’s probably a good case that could be made that prior to  1948, Mutual had the best Mystery-Suspense line-ups in radio bar none.  Mutual had Sherlock Holmes for three years, and brought to radio the first adaptations of Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, Michael Shayne, and much later, Mike Hammer. They also had the iconic Shadow, and the often mysterious Superman on their network. Sadly, much of Mutual’s fine work has been lost.  What remains gives us an idea of what we’re missing.

Still, there’s some outstanding radio that’s available. Now it’s time to get into the list.

5) The Adventures of Michael Shayne starring Wally Maher

Aired: 1944-47

This is not the best known of the Michael Shayne adaptations. The syndicated hard boiled detective version starring Jeff Chandler was. However, Maher’s characterization of Shayne in the five surviving episodes from his era as the great detective is well-done, a bit lighter, somewhat more in the mold of Let George Do It with a much lighter feel than its hard boiled successor.  Cathy Lewis does a good job as a girl Friday.

These shows are particularly gratifying to listen to as Wally Maher spent much of his career playing the secondary detective who usually got it wrong such as in Let George Do It as Lieutenant Riley and in The Line-up at Matt Grebb, it’s gratifying to hear him in a program where he gets to solve the case.

Fan vote: 12%

4) Hercule Poirot starring Harold Huber

Aired: 1945
Harold HuberAmericans were interested in Hercule Poirot going back several years. Orson Welles first brought the character to the radio in a Campbell’s Playhouse presentation of “The Murder of Roger Akroyd.” In 1942-43, 3 Hercule Poirot Short stories were adapted for the Mutual program, Murder Clinic.

Poirot got his own show in 1945 with Harold Huber in the lead. The opening program from February of that year featured pre-recorded audio of Agatha Christie welcoming listeners to the program.

The mysteries were fairly good and Huber’s characterization of Poirot is wonderful. It’s not as perfect as David Suchet’s but was far better than many that would come in years to follow. His portrayal was as someone who was kind and charming, but also a very smart detective who outmaneuvers his opponents.

Some Christie purists are not fans of the series, partially because actual Christie stories weren’t used and partially because Poirot was transplanted to America. The first episode has him struggling to find an apartment in America. The humor in that is not at Poirot’s expense. America was already beginning to face a housing shortage during World War II. The message of the radio program seemed to be, “Housing is so hard to find, even the great Hercule Poirot couldn’t easily uncover the location of a vacant apartment.”

Poirot appears to have ended in 1945. I did stumble across a Billboard magazine report indicating stating that CBS did an evening serial of Poirot stories. However, like most 15 minute mystery serials, these episodes are lost to the ages, so we don’t know if they were ever aired.

Fan Vote: 19%

Beatrice said, “I voted for Hercule Poirot partly because it is so hard to find, making it a treasure to hear. Are there many episodes?”

There are actually nine 30 minute episodes in circulation as well as two audition recordings from 1944 for a 15 minute-a-day serial. That’s about one quarter of the show’s in circulation which, when compared to some of the other shows on this list, isn’t too bad.

3) The Casebook of Gregory Hood starring Gale Gordon and then Elliot Lewis

Aired: 1946-47, 1948-49

Gale GordonThe Casebook of Gregory Hood began as a Summer replacement for Sherlock Holmes with Gale Gordon as San Francisco-based antiques dealer Gregory Hood.

Despite being set in the 1940s, the show had a lot in common with the Holmes program that preceded it. The show had the same sponsor (Petri Wine), the same announcer (Harry Bartel), and the same writers (Dennis Green and Anthony Boucher.) The show’s feel was somewhere between that of Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter, but much more in the gentleman detective tradition.

Mutual signed Basil Rathbone to play in Scotland Yard when he wasn’t interested in playing Holmes, and kept the Casebook of Gregory Hood, changing the lead to rising young radio star Elliot Lewis (picture courtesy of the Digital Deli).

Both portrayals are interesting in  that Gordon, while a talented character actor, was best known for his comedic roles particularly as a foil to Eve Arden in Our Miss Brooks and Lucille Ball in The Lucy Show on television. In the Casebook, Gordon got to show his versatility.

The Lewis episodes are interesting in that this was his only lead role in Elliot Lewisa detective series. Lewis did the most portrayals of Hood, however only five of his programs survive. The Casebook of Gregory Hood shut down in May of 1947 and Lewis starred in Voyage of the Scarlet Queen until March 1948 when he resumed his role as Hood over the Don Lee Mutual Broadcasting system. This entire 52 episode 1948-49 run is missing, as is ABC run that ran from 1950-51.

Still, what we do have in circulation are 15 episodes featuring two of radio’s most noted actors in the role of the suave and always clever amateur detective from the less seedy side of San Francisco.

Fan Vote: 2%

2) Nick Carter starring Lon Clark

Aired: 1943-55

*Knocks  at the door*

A woman opens the door. “What’s the matter? What is it?”

A male voice says, “It’s another case for Nick Carter, Master Detective!”

Que the organ music.

This early opening for Nick Carter was one of radio’s best, as was the program it followed. “Master Detective” may sound kind of old fashioned, but the character was actually older than Sherlock Holmes, having debuted in 1886.

Lon ClarkNick Carter had his origins in dime novels, and the show reflected that with cases that included not only mystery but adventures with often unusual perils, and titles such as, “Body on the Slab” and “Nine Hours to Death.” In the pre-hard-boiled era, there was no detective on radio who was as tough or as resourceful in a jam as Nick Carter.

While the supporting cast changed throughout the run, Lon Clark continued to star throughout the entire run. 125 episodes are in common circulation, but that’s only a fraction of the more than 700 episodes that were produced. The show was enduringly popular and so was the character. Nick Carter continued to appear in movies and novels until the 1990s, with the character regeared towards cold war spying.

Fan Vote: 7%

1) Let George Do It starring Bob Bailey

Aired: 1946-54?

Bob BaileyThe story of Let George Do It is the story how one of radio’s weakest comedies became one of its finest detective shows. Let George Do It began in 1946 as a detective comedy that took its comedy way too far.  Shows like Leonidas Witherall, The Thin Man, and Mr. and Mrs. North included comedy in their mysteries. None of them thought of including a laugh track.

The show began featuring Bob Bailey as George Valentine, a World War II veteran returned from the war who puts out an ad to take any difficult including wife-spanking (a popular comedic trope of the day). He’s assisted by his secretary, Claire Brooks and her brother and George’s assistant, Sonny (played by Eddie Firestone, Jr.) The first two cases involve George trying to find a wife for his hayseed cousin who is a pig farmer and wants a wife who likes pigs, and then George needing to fill in for a movie cowboy who has become afraid of horses but fears disappointing an orphanage.

Due to the fact that only one episode between November 1946 and April 1948 is an existence, no one knows quite when it hits stride, but the show had already begun to right a little bit, by the 1946 episode, “The Robbers” with a real to goodness mystery. But that would be nothing compared to what the show became.

Let George Do It by 1948 was one of the best detective programs. There was still endearing bits of humor, but the show also featured:

  • Dangerous situations that would make Sam Spade sweat.
  • Baffling mysteries that were on occasion worthy of Sherlock Holmes.
  • Real human dramas that are mixed in with the mysteries.
  • The best-written and best developed female assistant on the radio who provided the show with plenty of romantic tension.

These would be sprinkled throughout the episodes. Each episode of Let George Do It is a surprise. You never know what exactly you’re going to get, whether it will be  an exciting murder mystery that borders on the hardboiled, a psychological thriller, or a lighter story. Regardless of what it is, nine times out of ten you’re going to get a great story.

The writing on this show was superb with David Victor  teaming up with Herbert Little, Jr. and then the great Jackson Gillis (who later wrote for Columbo and Superman)to create some of the most memorable  radio mysteries ever produced.

Bob Bailey was fantastic in the lead, creating the perfect d detective characterization that would later make him a success on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Both actresses who played Brooksie were superb, as was Wally Maher in the supporting role of Lieutenant Riley.  Even the show’s commercials for Standard Oil are pleasant and informative to this day.

The show is less known because it only aired on the West Coast, but thanks to the Internet, many people are discovering the show, and are quite happy to listen and find out what happens when they “Let George Do It.”

Fan Vote:  60%

Timothy Dunning summed the reason this show garnered so much support, “Let George do it” survived a shaky first season as an ill-conceived comedy to become one of the best (and long-lasting) OTR detective shows. It had consistently good writing, performances, and production values.”

Enough said.

Next week, we turn to NBC-based shows.

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